Home-school, private-school families win tax break
SC House approves private school choice bill
Published: Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 9:10 a.m.
COLUMBIA — After eight years of fighting, proponents of helping parents send their children to private schools won approval Wednesday in the South Carolina House.
The House voted 65-49 on a measure supporters say represents a home-grown version of a long-divisive issue fueled by out-of-state money.
Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Mauldin, said it's about providing parents choices.
"I don't believe education is a one-size-fits-all proposition," he said. He noted students can get lottery-funded scholarships toward tuition at private colleges in the state: "Why shouldn't we give the choices in K-12?"
The bill would allow parents to take a $4,000 tax deduction per child for tuition paid, $2,000 for homeschool expenses and $1,000 per child who attends a public school outside the district where he or she lives. It would allow people to claim tax credits for donating to newly created nonprofits giving scholarships to poor and disabled students.
Budget advisors expect the bill to reduce state revenues by $37 million in 2012-13 — a much smaller price tag from previous versions, due to caps on the total credits claimed by businesses and taxpayers who donate to the scholarships groups.
The projection includes tax deductions for more than 52,600 students in private schools, 10,400 in home schools, and 2,400 for outside school districts. Unlike previous bills, there is no phase-in for students already in private or home schools. All parents could begin claiming the deduction in 2012-13.
"All those families are already paying big bucks," said Rep. James Smith, D-Columbia. He said the tax savings is "just gravy for families who really don't need it."
The measure represents the fifth version of an idea that has died repeatedly since former Gov. Mark Sanford rolled out the first plan in February 2004. Another perfunctory vote in the House would send it to the Senate, where an identical bill has been introduced.
Last year's version died on the House floor by a vote of 61-59, and in the Senate Education Committee 6-10.
Neil Mellen, spokesman for South Carolinians for Responsible Government — a major lobbying group behind the idea — said 24 other states have some form of private school choice. He believes the idea has picked up steam here as lawmakers change their previous view that supporting it means not supporting public education. It's not an either-or proposition, he said.
Opponents argued the win stems from years of browbeating in which Republicans who didn't support the idea were targeted for removal during mudslinging primary races.
Rep. Boyd Brown, D-Winnsboro, said those who voted for it were OK'ing such nasty tactics and saying that's how things can get passed in this state. He said he also opposed it as "incentivizing parents to take their children out of public schools, to fracture our communities more than they're fractured now."
Mellen contends there's another type of pressure from the other side, with teachers being told to vocally oppose it.
The measure would allow tuition scholarships of up to $10,000 for students with disabilities and $5,000 for poor students. They could not exceed 75 percent of the full cost of tuition.
Opponents doubted the measure would truly help poor children escape failing schools, as supporters argue is the bill's purpose. But Mellen said programs in other states show tens of thousands of poor kids there are attending private schools through scholarships awarded.
Republicans killed amendments that would require yearly audits of those scholarship-granting groups, as well as public reporting of the number of scholarships awarded, amounts given, and to which schools.